Why 'stupid human tricks' might be the future of the circus

Does the closure of "The Greatest Show on Earth" signal the demise of all circuses? Not at all, says the matriarch of the Alberta-based and family-run Circus of Hell.

Ringling Brothers' demise doesn't signal the end of all circuses, says Alberta-based troupe

Doug Thompson (pictured) and his wife, Susan, are the founding members of Alberta circus troupe, Circus of Hell. They don't use animals in their performances, instead preferring to rely on 'stupid human tricks.' (Paul Lavoie Images)

Despite the closure of the world's most famous circus, a travelling Alberta troupe says the show will go on for many smaller troupes.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus announced two days ago that it would perform its final shows this spring, citing a variety of factors.

Among them, the circus said it had struggled to transition into an animal-free act. The circus had been embroiled in lengthy legal battles with animal rights activists, which eventually led to the removal of the show's elephants.

But the demise of the "Greatest Show on Earth" doesn't signal the death of the circus, according to Susan Thompson, the matriarch of the family-run troupe Circus of Hell.

She says Circus of Hell and many other acts have been finding success without using lions, tigers or elephants to perform their tricks.

"[In] modern circus, we don't need that," said Thompson. "Cirque du Soleil has really opened up the door for a ton of new and very innovative circus troupes. We have stupid human tricks instead."

She spoke to the Calgary Eyeopener's Jennifer Keene on Tuesday morning to tell us more. 

A performer with Circus of Hell bends her heels over her head during a performance. (William Vavrek Photography)

Q: What did you think when you heard the Ringling Brothers Circus was closing down?

A: It's the end of an era but I think that the rumours of the death of all circuses are greatly exaggerated. We have Cirque du Soleil who has pioneered circuses without animals and that's really where modern circus is going.

Q: What was it that Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus were doing that didn't match the public's attitudes anymore?

A: Their branding was so built around the stereotypical idea of "we have the lion, we have the tiger, we have the elephant," that people just couldn't associate them with anything else at this point. These are wild and often endangered animals [that] are being trained with methods that modern audiences just aren't going to stand for and I don't blame them.

Q: So tell us about these "stupid human tricks."

A: The ring of fire is a stereotypical part of the circus and we've really expanded that and used that excitement and danger with people. When we started, I was an individual performer — I was a belly dancer — and then I started performing with fire fans and my husband was my safety. And over time he got involved doing fire eating and fire breathing and as it turns out, he has quite a fireproof tongue and has managed to set some world records with it.

Our daughters even got involved. One day I was watching my daughter eating a lollipop on the couch and she was eating it with her toes, with her legs bent back and down to her face and I thought, "either she's possessed, or we need to get her some training." We've done everything from individual weddings to arena shows.

Q: What is the philosophy of your circus?

A: First of all, nobody is going to perform if they don't want to. We're all doing it for the joy of it, for the thrill of it, and above all, circus is about bringing that awe and joy and thrill to audiences in a live setting. Nothing beats live performance. It's one thing if you see me on a video with fire, it's another thing if you're in front of us and you feel the heat. That's something that will never die because people will always have that hunger for something real.

In the circus, you're doing things that could cause you to lose your life. Death-defying tricks...we don't need tigers for that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener